The Real American Girl

Let’s get one thing straight: American Girl -- the inspiration for Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, the just-released movie starring Abigail Breslin -- is a product. It’s a company. It’s a money-making enterprise. It’s owned by Mattel now. That alone speaks volumes.

What it’s not is the sum total of its press. Yes, American Girl is an inspirational and educational series of books aimed at tween girls -- one of the largest and fastest-growing segments of the spending population, as Miley Cyrus can certainly attest. And it started out as an interesting and education-based idea, with fairly pure motives. Conceived in 1983 by Pleasant T. Rowland, the early dolls were accompanied by historically based stories written by none other than Danielle Steele. (I leave to you, the reader, to decide whether anything penned by Danielle Steele can truly be called "pure" without a derogative like "crap" added. But I digress.) Even so, it’s not the second coming of Little House in the Big Woods. Your children’s children’s daughters won’t still be buying Molly McIntyre books, just like my kids’ kids’ sons won’t be playing with my Star Wars toys (more’s the pity).

But that doesn’t take away from the excitement surrounding the books now. The publicity for the first theatrical release of Kit Kittredge -- and if you haven't seen an ad for it yet, you’re not paying enough attention to your television, or at least to the Disney Channel -- is a smaller, girl-only version of the Harry Potter fad. And to be sure, even with all its commercialism, it shares something of the innocence of the Potter books. American Girl is more educationally motivated than Barbie, and a hell of a lot less slutty than Bratz. Those comparisons alone find American Girl accepted -- even if still grudgingly -- in a lot of very choosy households.

Why grudgingly? Part of it has to do with price; these dolls start at nearly $100, and outfits and furniture can run hundreds more. (Ironic, considering how many of the stories of the dolls’ lives focus on their families not having enough money.) To make matters worse, the recent expansion of the line has not only de-emphasized the historic element upon which the original line was based but also introduced collectability to the line, as new characters are introduced and then "retired" a year later -- creating not only a completist mentality, but a lucrative back-market.

Whether or not American Girl will become a victim of its own success is anyone’s guess. For now, it’s the hot tween property for summer. And if you have a daughter between the ages of six and eleven or so, I know what you’ll be doing this weekend. Or at the very least, what you’ll be asked to do. So don’t be ashamed when you give in -- it’s still light years better than the boy-crazy crud of High School Musical and its skulking, too-sexualized ilk.

Just do yourself and your daughters a favor: Don’t just see Kit Kittredge. Make sure your girls read the books, too. Read them together. And when you’re done, break out those old well-read, well-loved stories by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and show them what a real American girl was like. -- Teague Bohlen

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